Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maersk Alabama attacked again. Armed guards stop the attack.

These guys don't know when to quit, do they?

Somali pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama again earlier today. The attack was repelled by armed security guards stationed aboard the ship.

You may recall that earlier this year the same ship was attacked, which led to a hostage standoff with the U.S. Navy that ultimately ended when Navy SEALS killed three pirates and rescued the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Captain Richard Phillips.

Here is the part of the article that really gets me though:

Vice Adm. Bill Gortney of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the Maersk Alabama had followed the maritime industry's "best practices" in having a security team on board.

"This is a great example of how merchant mariners can take proactive action to prevent being attacked and why we recommend that ships follow industry best practices if they're in high-risk areas," Gortney said in a statement.

However, Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the international maritime community was still "solidly against" armed guards aboard vessels at sea, but that American ships have taken a different line than the rest of the international community.

"Shipping companies are still pretty much overwhelmingly opposed to the idea of armed guards," Middleton said. "Lots of private security companies employee people who don't have maritime experience. Also, there's the idea that it's the responsibility of states and navies to provide security. I would think it's a step backward if we start privatizing security of the shipping trade."

Simply put, Vice Admiral Gortney is right and Roger Middleton is wrong.

Obviously there is a need for naval protection and the United States and other countries are busy doing everything they can to keep piracy in the area at a minimum (and have been doing a pretty good job of it, as the number of pirate attacks has dropped dramatically over the past few months.)

However, pirates are going to try and attack ships which are not in the close vicinity of naval vessels. Since the northwestern Indian Ocean is a huge area it's safe to assume that if they are patient enough, they can find merchant vessels, yachts or other private vessels which are at least for the time it takes to attack beyond the reach of naval units.

When this happens it makes sense for shipping companies to have hired private security guards to protect their vessels, as apparently Maersk has done. Because when an attack happens, the only ship guaranteed to be in the vicinity is the one which is under attack. I often disagree with my fellow lefty bloggers on gun issues and it is a similar argument. I fully support the police and I believe in maintaining a strong police presence, especially in communities where there is a lot of crime, but if you do need to defend yourself or somebody else (in your home or elsewhere) the only person guaranteed to be around at all times, is yourself. Sometimes the police get there in time, and other times they show up and take pictures later.

We can also take a clue from the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when piracy was rampant. Certainly navies (which at that time especially meant the British navy) did everything they could to stamp out piracy. However, merchantmen at the time ran armed precisely because they knew they were sitting ducks if a pirate vessel showed up out of nowhere and there was no Man-of-War around. It is true that ships now have radios and can call for help as soon as an attack begins, but it still may be many hours before help arrives on the high seas.

As it becomes common knowlege that American-flagged vessels are hiring private security guards (and other nations are slower to do so) my guess is that we will see the pirates simply choose to avoid American-flagged ships and look for the easier targets.


Anonymous said...

I hear what you're saying but I'm not sure that you want to turn the high seas into a shooting gallery. What's to keep the pirates from adjsting their strategy to something more violent (say, homemade mines that will stop a ship cold and maybe sink it while they rescue, er-- pull hostages-- out of the water?)

Eli Blake said...

I don't think that would work. Mines might be effective if you know where a ship has to go, like the entrance to a harbor or even a narrow strait like the Bab al-Mandab, but obvious pirate targets like that are very well patrolled now by navies.

However laying mines in the open ocean where they are operating now isn't practical. For one thing the shipping lanes are hundreds of miles wide (even when ships are in a shipping lane) and you would have practically no chance of laying it dead on ahead of a ship. And then the ocean out in the middle of the Indian Ocean is miles deep, so you couldn't anchor your mine and it would probably just drift with the current and form a general hazard to any ships (including other pirates) that were out there.